Many divorces end in custody battles for children. What happens when the couple has a pet? According to a 2006 survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 25 percent reported an increase in custody battles over pets. Joint custody, sole custody, visitation rights, or splitting up the pets between partners are all up for discussion when it comes to divorce these days. Conflict also arises over who pays the bills for the pets regardless of who gets custody.
This topic of divorce and pets has become so widespread that there are even books on the subject. Jennifer Keene, author of We Can’t Stay Together for the Dogs: Doing What’s Best for Your Dog When Your Relationship Breaks Up says that a couple should put aside emotion, resentment, and recrimination and focus on figuring out what’s best for the animal. She writes that under no circumstances should a pet go to someone who likes the idea of having the pet but doesn’t have sufficient time because of travel, work, or other obligations; nor should the pet go to someone happy to attend to the “fun things” but not the “not so fun things” such as poop scooping, veterinary visits, and end of life decisions.
Although most believe pet custody cases should be decided in the same way as child custody cases, that’s not the way the law sees it now. “The best interest of the pet” is not a consideration, and the animal is pretty much considered property. Arrangements when it comes to pets aren’t always amicable. In one high-profile case, a couple in San Diego fought over their pointer-greyhound mix for two years during their divorce. Stanley and Linda Perkins racked up more than $150,000 in legal fees during the proceedings. Linda was finally awarded custody of Gigi.
If you are going through a divorce and want custody of your pet, here’s some advice about what you can do:
• Understand that no matter how much your pet may seem like a family member, to a court it is just another possession to be divided at divorce.
• Know that if the animal was yours before the marriage or if you have been the primary caretaker of the animal during the marriage, you are more likely to be awarded possession.
• Tell your lawyer how important your pet is to you and make sure he or she treats this as a priority.
• Realize that if you have children, it makes the most sense for the pet to live where the children will live, since they have probably formed an attachment.
• Try to talk to your spouse about the pet and see if you can work something out. You might be able to make visitation arrangements.
• Avoid separating pets if you have two or more of the same species. This could cause depression or anxiety for the animals.
• Recognize that if you have a valuable pet, such as a show dog or show cat, the animal will be carefully considered by the court as a valuable asset-and possibly as a business if, for example, you show the animal and/or collect stud fees.
• Show the court that you are the person best able to care for the animal-you have time to play with it, exercise it, and groom it. Show that you have space in your home for the animal. If necessary, have your vet testify about your ability to care for the animal.
Since 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, my advice is to plan ahead. Over the years I’ve seen many animals turned in to shelters because of a divorce. At the very least, make sure one spouse keeps the pet. Hopefully the true animal lover will get the dog instead of the doghouse.